I didn’t buy any food for a year – and I’m healthier than I’ve ever been
Rob Greenfield gardened, fished and foraged to eat more sustainably and encourage others to do the same. But to succeed, he needed the community
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19 Dec 2019 THE GUARDIAN
For the last year I grew and foraged 100% of my food. No grocery stores, no restaurants, not even a drink at a bar. Nature was my garden, my pantry and my pharmacy.
Most people would imagine I live in the countryside on a farm, but actually I live in a city; Orlando, Florida, a few miles from the centre. When I arrived here, I didn’t own any land, so in order to grow my food I met people in the neighbourhood and turned their lawns into gardens and shared the bounty of food with them. I’m a big believer in the philosophy “grow food, not lawns”.
I also needed a place to live for my two-year stay in Orlando and I also found this through the local community. I put the message out that I was looking for someone with an unused backyard who could benefit from my being on the property. After a short search I found Lisa, a woman in her early 60’s with a lifelong dream of living more sustainably. I built a 100 sq ft tiny house in her backyard and in exchange I turned her entire front yard into a garden, set up rainwater harvesting, composting and grew her fresh produce. Together, we helped meet each other’s basic needs through an exchange, rather than using money.
As well as expecting me to live on a farm, most people would probably presume that I had some serious gardening experience to launch this kind of project. On the contrary, previously I had tended just a few small raised beds, growing greens, herbs and tomatoes.
For the past six years I had spent much of my life on the road and as much as I wished to grow my own food, I had never made it happen.
I gave myself just six months of preparation from the time I landed in Orlando to the start of the year when I would buy no food. That was wishful thinking, but just four months behind schedule I was ready to dive into the deep end and forgo all food from the industrial food system for the entire year.
My first breakfast of the year turned out to be my first-ever 100% homegrown and foraged meal. From then I was fully immersed in my food – every meal, every snack, every single bite and nibble.
Although this specific project was new, it was not the first time that I had become totally immersed in my food. In 2011 I was living a pretty typical consumeristic life. I never thought about where my food came from until, through watching documentaries and reading, I woke up to the fact that I was consuming the planet I loved with every bite I took.
I vowed to change my eating habits and to inspire others to do so as well. Over the next year I grew over 100 different foods in my gardens. This included dozens of different greens packed with nutrients, sweet potatoes for my caloric needs, delicious fruits like papayas and bananas, veggies like pumpkins, carrots, beans and beets and herbs and peppers to flavour all of my meals. I raised bees so I could have my own candy shop right at home.
Around half of my food came from my garden and the other half was from foraging. I foraged more than 200 foods from nature. I harvested my own sea salt from the ocean, picked coconuts for a good source of fat, foraged my fruit from hundreds of trees, caught fish from lakes, rivers and the ocean, harvested mushrooms in the woods, and picked nutritious weeds from people’s yards.
Fishing was not just a means of food for me, it was a way to feel connected to the land around me. I used a cast net, typically from the front of a canoe, to catch mullet, one of the most abundant and sustainable fish in Florida.
Protein was one of my most difficult necessities to forage. I was having a hard time catching enough fish, and around month eight I started to become deficient in fat and protein. I remedied this by finding a few deer that had been hit by cars. Some find this to be controversial, but to me it’s just common sense to use resources that would otherwise go to waste. I know exactly how to identify how long a deer has been dead and if it’s still good. It may be hard to fathom for someone living in the city, but the details are clear to those who understand the basic signs of nature.
I grew my own medicine and vitamins too, including turmeric and ginger, elderberries to make elderberry syrup to prevent colds and flu and reishi mushrooms. Dried and powdered moringa, also known as the vitamin tree, was my multivitamin when I travelled.
I cooked up dozens of different healthy meals, fermented veggies to make sauerkraut and made delicious beverages like honey wine and ginger beer. I think it’s safe to say that I ate the healthiest diet of my life. I finished the year weighing the same as when I had started, and I didn’t get sick once. I trusted nature and it paid off.
This project wasn’t just about growing and foraging all my food, though. It was about empowering others to grow their own food and reclaim their health. During the year I built gardens for 15 other people through my Gardens for the People programme, planted more than 200 community fruit trees, sent out more 5,000 seed packs to help people grow their own organic, healthy food and taught free gardening classes to the people in my community.
Throughout the year I worked with five single-parent local families to help them grow healthy food. The programme provided its own challenges, but it was truly beautiful to see the children and their mothers connect with the land under their feet and harvest the food growing freely and abundantly in their own yards.
I’ve been exploring food for nearly a decade and I believe that the globalised, industrialised food system is broken. This was my personal quest to see whether I could step away from big agriculture and grow and forage every bite of my own food. I saw that it is indeed possible. I’m not saying it’s possible for everyone. In fact, I don’t think it is possible for most of us. More importantly I don’t think it’s even necessary. The answers lie in community.
I simply want others to question their food: where does it come from? How does it get to you? How did it impact the Earth, other species and the people who grew it? And if they don’t like the answers they find, I want to empower them to change the answers.
The good news is that you don’t need to go for 100% – you can start where you are. You can grow a little bit of your own food. You can learn and harvest the edible plants and weeds in your region. You can source your food locally and purchase from local farmers and gardeners. You can buy whole foods and cook more, rather than packaged processed foods.
This needn’t be a lonely journey. We can do this together in our communities. The solutions are here and they are delicious and nutritious and part of a happier, healthier and more sustainable life.
Follow Rob on Instagram or watch more of his story here.
An earlier version of this piece ran in Wicked Leeks, the magazine on sustainable food and ethical business, published by Riverford. Sign up for a weekly newsletter here.